Sottsass was born to Austro-Italian parents, but beyond this his life is hard to sum up concisely. He was an architect; a designer of ceramics, furniture, electronics, jewellery and graphics; a prolific photographer who shot Hemingway, Picasso, Ernst and Chet Baker; an artist and a writer; the progenitor of the Memphis design group; a WW2 prisoner of war; a traveler and a documentarian.
Yet one incident, time spent travelling across Italy with Beat poet Allen Ginsberg in 1967, stands out. Sottsass knew many of the Beat writers and there are connections between his design and their writing.
If the Beats' texts were rebellious, anti-establishment, experimental, excitable and occasionally quasi-mystical in tone, so too was Sottsass' design. It was anarchic and counter-culture, relishing in colour, patterning, symbols, signs and the emotional resonance that objects can have. His most famous work, the 1981 Carlton room divider, is a case in point. It is a colourful, slabby, unorthodox piece; a jigsaw of plastic laminate that suggests a menorah more than it does a conventional screen.
Sottsass and his non-conformity is now the subject of a new monograph published by Phaidon. With texts by writer Philippe Thomé, it provides an overview of Sottsass' life and work, running through his biography, influences and critical examination of his output, accompanied by sketches, photography, graphics and paintings.
To mark the release of the book, Disegno spoke to Barbara Radice. Radice was Sottsass' second wife and an important figure in his life; it was the apartment that they shared in Milan in which the Memphis group first formed in 1981 and Radice was a constant throughout the final period of Sottsass' career. The couple met in 1976 and were married until his death in 2007. Below, she shares her memories of her husband's work.
Let’s start by talking about the book. When were you made aware of the project?
Richard Schlagman from Phaidon Press came to Milano in 2007 to meet Ettore. They were speaking about the possibility of doing a book, which Ettore was happy to do. When Ettore left Richard wanted to finalise everything, so we signed the contract in 2008.
Was Ettore excited by the idea of the book?
I don’t think he was excited. I think he was contento.
Its release this year seems quite timely. Memphis is talked about a lot at the moment, but people sometimes act as if Ettore's career is synonymous with Memphis. Obviously he worked much more broadly than that.
I would say so! There's a tendency with everything to just mention the most iconic phenomena, so with Ettore’s it’s the Valentine typewriter and Memphis. But I don’t think people forget the other areas.
How cohesive was Memphis as a movement? You had a chance to observe it. George Sowden, one of the participants, has previously denied it was a coherent style.
I think George is right. When you speak about something that happened the past, there's always a tendency to simplify things. The only thing those designers really had in common, and which kept the group together, was a desire to challenge the status quo. Their idea was to escape that. Everybody contributed, but nobody ever set rules or said what you could or couldn’t do.
Despite that freedom there was a clear sense in which Ettore was the leader of the group. Did he see himself in that role? Did he enjoy that sort of role?
No. Ettore never saw himself as the leader of anything. We never spoke about leadership. Ettore was already "Ettore Sottsass” of course, so maybe he had a different weight to some of the very young designers taking part. But George Sowden had worked with Ettore for years at Olivetti and Shiro Kuramata was already known. Everyone made their own contribution. I don’t think Ettore ever wanted to be the leader; he would have hated the idea.
Why would he hate it?
Because of his nature. I don’t think he liked leaders and he didn’t like the idea of being a leader. He was aware of his talent, but he detested any type of institution or hierarchy. For instance, he hated teaching, although he gave very good lessons. He didn’t like anything that told you what to do. He believed everybody should find their own way of doing things.
His output was very eclectic and he was a designer in an exceptionally broad sense of the term. Did he ever compartmentalise the different strands of his work?
No. For Ettore life was a whole, a continuous thing. Writing, taking pictures, drawing, making architecture, they were different parts of the same thing for him. He had a very Renaissance approach.
But he saw himself as an architect first and foremost?
He was an architect. He trained in that.
Although a lot of people would say his best work was in product and furniture design.
It’s difficult to compartmentalise Ettore. Being an architect for him didn’t only mean making buildings, but having a certain outlook on life and having a certain education and idea of how the world is. It was about creating space and having an awareness of existing in that space. More complex than simply building things. He was a designer certainly, but he also wrote, took photographs, painted. I don't think you could take one part out.
He moved in eclectic circles. He was friends with some of the leading artists, writers and musicians of the 20th century.
Everything influenced him. Ettore was very curious about life and maybe that’s why his range of interests was so wide. He read a lot about anthropology, ethnology, geography and archaeology. If you say he was a designer, well a designer is not usually that. Or at least not nowadays. People don’t have as wide an outlook today. Ettore was a complex man and he was certainly influenced by all of the famous people he met. But he was also influenced, for instance, by the Pre-Socratic philosophers.
Design has opened up in the past decades however. It’s now a more varied discipline than it used to be.
True, but there’s more specialisation as well. I think that’s a change that’s taking place in our culture in general.
Did that concern Ettore?
He saw it happening, but being him I don’t think he was concerned. He always thought the world would take care of itself.
At the start of his career he had a very utopian belief in design’s power to change things. Did he always maintain that?
It was an attitude more than a belief. Ettore thought that design should help people become more aware of their existence: the space they live in, how to arrange it and their own presence in it. That was the core of Ettore. To not just create consumer objects.
People usually characterise Ettore’s design in terms of things like patterning and colour. Those are a much more obvious aspect of his design handwriting than that attitude you’ve just described.
That's another part of Ettore, true. In order to obtain the results he obtained, he had to be sophisticated in using colour, decoration and signs. He used patterns, classic laminates, colour – all things that appealed to the senses. People often don’t have time to go deeper into things. They see Ettore and say “Ah, this man is good with colour and pattern.” They see what is immediately visible, but if you have time to go deeper it’s better.
Ettore is misunderstood. People for instance say he’s very playful, but I don’t think he’s playful. They see the joyful parts, but if you look for longer you see other things as well. Don’t you think so?
I do, but I think it’s interesting that you’re keen to emphasise the research and thought behind his projects, because one of his great strengths was that his finished works often looked rather anarchic and effortless.
The best things happen effortlessly. Dante, Shakespeare, Chaucer. In some ways beauty, or anything that is surprising, is effortless. Anything that is very good has the quality of communicating amazement and surprise. You’re surprised because it seems as if it has always been there.
So how would Ettore begin a new project in order to get that effect?
Drawing. Always drawing. The Carlton Room Divider started with him sketching while on the phone.